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Pioneer of Our Valley

by Dana Davis Kelly

Nicette Davis, our mother and one of the oldest residents of the Little Spokane Valley, quietly passed away August 29, 2014. Her last moments and the majority of her long life were spent in the peace and beauty of the farm she had so dearly loved. She was just two months shy of her 100th birthday.

Mother’s parents, Irving Hildenbrandt (Hildy, as he was known) and her mother, Carrie, purchased the farm from Charles L. Downer in the early spring of 1907, just a few years after arriving in Spokane from Ohio. Located north of Colbert Road and east of the Little Spokane River, the 160 acre farm (used at that time as a dairy) contained a stately 100 x 40 ft. barn built around 1890.

The timber was mostly likely milled at the “Chattaroy Lumber Company” located about a mile and a half north in the area known as Buckeye (where Little Spokane Drive meets Wollard Rd.). Our grandparents were also impressed by an orchard just north of Colbert Road along the hillside, lush grazing land, ample timber and two residents with outbuildings. But most enchanting to these newlyweds from the east was the beauty of nearly a mile of pristine Little Spokane River that meandered from the north passing under a private bridge as it continues a southward journey.

A faded photograph of our grandparents taken about that time, he with white shirt and suspenders, she with a long dress and sun hat, shows them in a boat coming down the river. On the back he had written: “This spot on the river is a ‘dream.’ The water is clear as crystal and the bank is lined with roses and willows.”

They were so proud and taken with the charm of their new farm; our grandparents appropriately named it “Tawasentha.” In the epic poem “Song of Hiawatha: by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘Tawasntha’ refers to the valley where Nawadaha sings the story of the legendary Iroquois leader, Hiawatha. In the vale of Tawasenta, in the green and silent valley, by the pleasant watercourses, dwelt the singer Nawadaha.” The poem speaks of beaver lodges, melancholy marshes, blue heron and grouse meadows, and cornfields with singing pine and pleasant watercourses you could trace through the valley, by the alders in the summer, by the white fog in the autumn, by the black line in the winter”. Fortunately, the loveliness of this location holds much of the same images today as seen by our grandparents over one-hundred years ago. The name “Tawasentha” is still beautifully appropriate.

Born in Iowa, our grandfather spent much of his youth in Kentucky. He was related to the widely known Col. Wynn Applegate, breeder of Kentucky Derby winner “Old Rosebud”, who coincidentally, took the cup in the year of Mother’s birth, 1914. Perhaps this was the foreshadowing of her lifelong love of horses. Coming to Spokane as an agent of Applegate, he promoted horse racing throughout the west.

In 1935, with other investors including Louis Davenport, he helped develop Playfair Racetrack and Fairgrounds in Spokane and at that time became the first general manager of Playfair. Mother would tell stories of the fun she had riding the exercise ponies on the track with her friend, then going to “Bob’s Chili Parlor” in Spokane for lunch afterward.

Our grandparents came to Spokane in 1902. By the time they purchased the farm their recollection of the area north of the city was as follows: “North Division did not exist; there was a wagon trail that meandered over the hill and northeast toward Peone Creek. It used to take us an hour and forty five minutes to go from town to the ranch by way of Shady Slope road along the southwest side of Peone creek. At the mouth of Peone was a favorite camping spot of the Indians. There was no road along the Little Spokane in those days.”

The Native Americans, according to our grandparents, would be fascinated with the beauty of the horses pulling their buggy and often ran up to get a closer look as they traveled by. Our grandmother drove a beautiful, gaited horse “Almota” and another “Babe” who won first place in the 1906 Spokane Interstate Fair. “Eleven families got together and set up the first power line in the district ‘our grandfather recounted,’ The Washington Water Power Company agreed to supervise the work and provide the power. It worked out very well, but we soon found out, it wasn’t the initial cost, but the upkeep that hurts so we gave it all to the power company and let them worry about it.”

Our grandfather hired men to run the dairy as his work often led him out of town to various race tracks. By this time our grandparents had a family of two children; our mother, Nicette born in 1914 and her brother Leslie, born in 1911. Mother often told us how, as a very young child, she would thrill at the opportunity to be placed upon the back of the large draft horse that helped work the dairy farm.

As children they would enjoy the river banks to swim and fish for perch and trout. They played morning to dusk. During the school year, the two would be driven to the schoolhouse on Bernhill, located about two miles away, by her mother, via horse drawn wagon. As a 1932 graduate of Mead High School (then known as Mead Union High), Mother’s senior class had only 24 students and 5 buses to gather students from surrounding areas. Sometime around Mother’s senior year a fire destroyed the main house on the west side of the river. Luckily, the family was able to relocate and renovate the farmhouse that now exists on the east side of the river.

Not long after their move the great depression hit the country and many people could not afford to keep their horses. As industrious Germans, the family of four gathered forces, purchased many of these horses and formed a riding stable that would help them through the tough times of this dark period. My mother was definitely pleased to assist with the saddle horses. Doctors and nurses would come out to ride horseback, and fish and enjoy the beauty of “Tawasentha”, now no longer a dairy.

I believe it was at this time Mother acquired her favorite horse, a dappled grey gelding she named “Sunny Boy”; who possessed an unusual ability to be trained to do most anything. The uncommonly bright horse would swim the river with her on his back and rear on command. Our Mother, and her horse were quite the loveable show offs. Many horses would follow, but this horse was quite special.

Eventually; the two children that enjoyed the magical memories on the beautiful little farm grew up to have families of their own. Mother who married our father, George Davis in 1942 had four children together; Annette, Mark, Kim, and Dana. Our uncle Leslie and his wife Anne had one child, Patricia. Luckily as kids, we lived close to our grandparents and created our own priceless memories.

Mother never got over her love of horses and the ability to marvel at the sight of the wildlife that lived in the marshes and came to drink in the tranquility of the stream. One day last summer, while in her wheelchair on the private bridge leading to her home, nearly 100 years after she first laid eyes on the sparkling river, she surprised me with the unusual reference to the water’s surface below. “Look at the wrinkles!” she exclaimed upon noting the little swirls and ripples. In that comment, I could see that Mother’s relationship to the river was almost as one would have to an old familiar friend. It was her fountain of youth and nourishment for her soul…they journeyed their lives together.

Our mother and “Tawasentha” have always seemed like one. There have been horses and ponies grazing cool wetlands and pasture as long as we can remember. Mother’s love of the wildlife, the river and her horses…the old barn and silo, and the cherished memories of a bygone day, only increased over the years. As her four children, we were fortunate to create our own memories on Tawasentha as she had. We were lucky to have her as our mother and the history she passed on to us. To this day, one very old, white horse remains. When he is not grazing by the water’s edge, he can be found dosing in the shade of the big old barn that has stood tall and strong through many years of change. This old Arab gelding was our Mother’s last horse. She named him “SunnyBoyII.”

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